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Pronoun Reference Errors

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Introduction

Pronouns require a clear antecedent. The antecedent is the noun (or pronoun) that the pronoun replaces. Most of the time the antecedent comes before the pronoun.

Here’s a sentence where the antecedent is not entirely clear:

The Hoffman kids have a hamster and a sugar glider, but they are always grumpy.

How do you know what they refers back to? Is it the kids or the pets? There is no easy way to tell.

Common problems

The following are the most common mistakes involving pronoun reference.

1. The pronoun refers to the wrong antecedent:

Our sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, but the hot temperatures have ionized it into a state called plasma.

Correct: Our sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, but the hot temperatures have ionized these gases into a state called plasma.

Correct: Our sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, but the hot temperatures have ionized them into a state called plasma.

2. The pronoun has no antecedent:

We studied the old English poem Beowulf, who killed a monster named Grendel.

In this sentence the pronoun who should refer back to the character Beowulf, but he is not mentioned (only the title is).

Be aware too that the antecedent should not be in the possessive case.

Incorrect: In Shakespeare’s sonnets, he often analyzes the effects of time.

Correct: In his sonnets, Shakespeare often analyzes the effects of time.

This is a frequent error in student writing.

3. The pronoun can refer to multiple antecedents:

Karla told Esther that she needed to declutter her house.

Correct: Talking to Esther, Karla said that she needed to declutter her house.

Such a problem is not always easy to fix without rewriting the sentence. Whatever you do, avoid clarifying the antecedent in brackets:

Incorrect: Karla told Esther that she (Karla) needed to declutter her house.

With any of these problems, try find a natural solution. You can add an antecedent, pick the correct pronoun, replace the pronoun with a noun, or rewrite the sentence.

Tips

To prevent problems, try follow these suggestions:

1. Watch out for too much distance between the pronoun and the antecedent.

2. Remember that a reader’s natural tendency is to assume that the antecedent is the last noun mentioned.

Hard cases

Collective nouns

A collective noun is a single group of multiple things or people:

Here are some examples of collective nouns:

Jury
People
Team
Herd
Army
Committee

Collective nouns take a singular pronoun if the emphasis is on the group as a single unit:

The army has sent out its recruiters.

A plural pronoun is appropriate if the focus is on the members of the group. This is especially the case where the members are doing different things:

The Liberal caucus were split over the issues facing them.

If this sounds awkward (it does to us!), then add a plural noun:

The members of the Liberal caucus were split over the issues facing them.

Indefinite pronouns

A lot of pronoun reference problems are caused by indefinite pronouns. As the chart shows, it can be tricky to remember which ones are singular and which ones plural.

Pronoun Reference-01

Here are some examples of correct pronoun reference using indefinite pronouns (neithereach, and some):

Neither student had seen her grades.

Each of the cars had its tires slashed.

Some of the test subjects reported that their marriages had improved.

These days, many of us use the singular indefinite pronouns as if they are plural (example: everyone):

Popular usage: Everyone dreams of their big breakthrough.

Formal usage: Everyone dreams of his or her big breakthrough.

Grammar books are becoming increasingly accepting of the first version, but in academic writing you’re better off following the traditional rules of grammar.

Gender

The previous example shows that we can avoid sexist language by referring to both he and she (or him and her). However, doing so repeatedly can be cumbersome.

In such cases, rewrite the sentence and use a plural form:

Incorrect: Many an athlete was banned from the Olympics because he or she had tested positive for doping. Each one blamed his or her mistake on his or her coach.

Better: Many athletes were banned from the Olympics because they had tested positive for doping. They all blamed their mistake on their coaches.

A good rule of thumb is that if you have to use he and she (or him and her) twice in close succession it’s time to shift to the plural.

The final word

While vague pronoun reference can be annoying, so is being obsessive about it.

For one thing, in speech we tend to be more casual with pronouns. There are also some expressions where the pronoun does not need to have an antecedent (e.g., It is raining; It was reported).

Also in writing there is no need to start replacing every pronoun with a noun just because there is a hint of ambiguity. A little bit of common sense goes a long way.